Psychology in Films: Shawshank Redemption Personality Theory

06 Apr 2018

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  • Eleanor Rutherford

Engler (2013) describes “personality" as an organised and dynamic set of characteristics, that an individual possesses, which influences their cognition,emotions, behaviour, motivations andenvironment. Krauskopf (1999) provides a wider definition in that “personality” refers to the patterns of thoughts, feelings, behaviours and social adjustments, which are consistently exhibited over time that intensely influences the expectations, self-perceptions, values, and attitudes of the individual. It can also predict an individual’s reactions to problems, stress and other people.

There are many theories which aim to understand and explain personality; these include trait, perspective, psychodynamic, humanistic, biological, behaviourist, evolutionary and social learning (Maltby, Day & Macaskill, 2010). This essay will examine, using the Five Factor model trait theory (Costa & McCrae,1995) and Carl Rogers (1957) humanistic theory, the character of Andy Dufresne in the film” The Shawshank Redemption” (Marvin & Darabont, 1994) and evaluate which provides the best account of his behaviour.

The Big Five personality traits are the five wide-ranging domains that are used to describe personality. Previously other trait theorist had suggested various numbers of possible traits, these included Allport's4,000 personality traits, Cattell's 16 personality factors and Eysenck's three-factor. However, many viewed Cattell's theory as too complex and Eysenck's in contrast was too limited. As a result of this, the five-factor theory emerged which describes the basic traits employed as the building blocks of personality. These factors are extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Each consists of more specific primary factors; for example, extraversion includes warmth, activity, excitement-seeking, positive emotions, gregariousness and assertiveness. The Big Five model accounts for different personality traits without overlapping. Research demonstrates that the Big Five are consistent in observations, interviews and self-descriptions. Additionally, the five-factor structure appears throughout a widespread range of participants of different cultures and age groups (Maltby et al., 2010).

Rogers’ theory suggests that people have an actualising propensity, or desire to achieve their full potential, referred to as self-actualisation. Rogers stated that a fully-functioning person is someone who is perpetually striving toward becoming self-actualized. This person has been the recipient of unconditional positive regard from others, places no conditions on their own worth, capably expressing feelings, and is open to the many experiences offered by life. Upon self-actualisation they would become a fully functioning person living what he referred to as "the good life". Which means the person would maintain a healthy psychological outlook, trust their feelings and there would be congruence in their lives between experience and self. Rogers believed that people are aware of what is causing the psychological imbalance in their lives and that deep down inside they know which actions are required to fully functioning people. Rogers maintained that humans are born with a desire to be the best they can. Self-actualisation is the motivating force to achieving their full potential. As infants the main goal towards self-actualisation is to have basic needs met such as being arm and fed (Maltby et al., 2010).

The “Shawshank Redemption” depicts the experiences of Andy Dufresne, who is wrongfully convicted of killing his wife and her illicit lover. He is handed down two life sentences and subsequently incarcerated in the notorious Shawshank Prison. Andy is initially portrayed as extremely quiet with other prisoners describing him as a “cold fish”. One of the major personality traits identified in the Big Five is Introversion. People who are introverted, that is to say low scoring on the Extraversion continuum, tend to beinward turning, or focused more on internal thoughts. This is demonstrated clearly on Andy’s first day of incarceration where he makes little eye contact, keeps his head down and does not respond to the taunting other prisoners. Viewed from a Rogerian perspective it could be said that Andy’s drive will be focused on the most basic of needs such as water, food sleep and safety (Maltby et al., 2010).

A significant change from Andy’s initial introverted state is seen when during work on a rooftop, Andy boldly manages to persuade the toughest guard there to allow him to assist with his taxes. Viewed from the Big Five perspective this would seem to be large swing from one end of the Extraversion scale to the other. Going from barely making eye contact and being compliant to risking being thrown from the prison roof are worlds apart. Given that that traits are assumed to be relatively stable this gives rise to the question of whether Andy truly in introverted or whether the sock of incarceration affected his normally more extrovert self. However, from a Rogerian perspective this would appear to be the beginning of Andy attempting to meet his innate need to self-actualise. As his basic needs are being met in the form of shelter, food etc. the desire to develop his potential appears to grow. Using his numerical skills will allow him to flourish (Maltby et al., 2010).

The rooftop incident leads to Andy becoming a trustee in the prison library and returning, outwardly at least, to his more introverted traits. He demonstrates from this point a further Big Five trait of Agreeableness. His compliance in assisting the prison officers with their taxes and personal finances demonstrate this. He also gets involved in building a new library for the benefit of his fellow inmates, a clear act of altruism, another sub category of Agreeableness. This continues until donations of books and records arrive at the prison and Andy discovers a copy of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" record. In another swing of personality, or perhaps a revalation of his true nature before incarceration, he locks the guard assigned to the warden's office in the toilets and plays the record over the prison's PA system for his own, and his fellow inmates pleasure. Again this seems in opposition to his mainly introverted outward behaviour as it an assertive act of defiance against both the warden and guards. Simultaneously it could be seen as both Agreeable and Extraverted behaviour. Agreeable in that it is an altruistic act of providing pleasure for all of the inmates knowing they will face no punishment and Extraverted in that is both assertive and clearly excitement seeking behaviour. Rogerian theory may account for this episode as an attempt to bring Andy’s real self closer to his conceptual self. Andy clearly finds a great deal of pleasure and fulfilment in listening to music but prison life blocks that from happening. Andy knew there would be a price to pay, in this case solitary confinement, but was driven to do it anyway (Maltby et al., 2010).

The true nature of Andy’s character unfolds as detail of his daring escape from prison come to light. The length of time that he had been working on his escape plan and the masterful way in which it was planned and executed demonstrated a high level of the trait Conscientiousness. Andy’s self-discipline was incredible, he not only was able to escape but he managed to acquire the finances required to do so and end the corruption within Shawshank whilst doing so .

When viewed longitudinally Andy’s story seems to be a clear path to self-actualisation as theorised by Rogers. Rogers highlights the uniqueness of the individual and that they themselves are capable of working out their own solutions, in this case an escape plan and end to corruption. Additionally, he stated that people have a natural tendency toward self-actualisation and growth, an innate drive to realise their potential (Maltby et al., 2010). Although some of Andy’s basic needs were met within the confines of Shawshank such as water, food and sleep the psychological needs were not. Andy appeared to be reaching to meet these needs by rock carving and building the library but it was clear that he needed more. His entire escape plan seemed to be driven not just by the injustice of being wrongfully imprisoned but by the drive develop his potential and qualities that would make him a worthwhile person.

Roger’s theory does appear to provide a good account of people’s behaviour in this case when compared to The Big Five. However although Rogers approach allows for variation it fails to identify enough constant variables in order to be researched accurately. Additionally the assertion the individuals intuitively seek positive goals, does not explain the presence of deviancy or evil within normal, functioning personalities such as Andy’s fellow inmates or the corrupt prison staff Maltby et al., 2010).


Costa Jr, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1995). Domains and facets: Hierarchical personality assessment using the Revised NEO Personality Inventory.Journal of personality assessment,64(1), 21-50.

Engler, B. (2013). Personality theories. Cengage Learning.

Krauskopf, C. J. (1999). The personality assessment system: A radical hypothesis.Applied and Preventive Psychology,7(4), 235-245.

Maltby, J., Day, L., & Macaskill, A. (2010). Personality, individual differences and intelligence. Pearson Education.

Marvin, N. (Producer), & Darabont, F. (Director). (1994). The Shawshank Redemption [Motion picture]. United States: Castle Rock Entertainment.

Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change.Journal of consulting psychology,21(2), 95.


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